It only took me two hours to start falling in love with Valencia, a place I wanted to see for many years. I had a couple of misfires in trying to visit before, including numerous invitations by a lover to visit him that never seemed to work out. Years later a friend of mine suggested we go for Semana Santa (Holy Week). I jumped at that chance and finally, after so many tries, it finally happened.
We took the AVE (Alta Velocidad, or high speed train) from Madrid, which is unbelievably fast. I sat down, chatted with my friend, traded a few messages with a colleague in New York, then opened my computer to write a blog for a customer. I literally wrote one sentence, then heard the announcement that we were rolling into Estación Joaquin Serolla. It had taken an hour and a half.
Like many high-speed stations in Spain, Estación Joaquin Serrola is located a bit away from the city center. You can take a quick walk to the closest Metro station, Joaquin Sorolla, or a taxi into the center. As we were only there for the weekend we decided for the taxi, which cost roughly 8€.
First we decided to take a walk to see the Cathedral and old town. Although it was Semana Santa, the city was still strung with the lights from Las Fallas. Most of them weren’t illuminated which added a bitter sweet feeling to our trip. If only we had come a month earlier!
Nonetheless, Valencia was lit beautifully. We made our way to the Cathedral, which appeared more Italian than Spanish. I walked inside and was surprised how different it was than other Spanish churches. In general, Spain is a very masculine country. For evidence of this one needs to look no further than the nearest restaurant menu. Where else would potatoes, ham and pasta be classified as vegetables? In keeping with this, most Spanish churches are filled with statues of Christ, the Apostles and male saints. Valencia is different. The most prominent figure here is the Madonna. But she’s not the pudgy, young, subservient woman you see in Muriillo paintings. The Valencian Madonnas are glamourous! They look like they’re in their early thirties, and all have delicate, runway model faces. Their statues are brightly lit and literally dripping with diamonds- tiaras, earrings and necklaces. The cathedrals themselves are hung with chandeliers and decorated with flowery baroque details. I saw them and immediately decided I liked the city.
Next stop was La Lonja, the old Silk Exchange. If you see one thing in Valencia, I recommend it be this. Make sure to pay the extra money for the audio guide as this will explain everything. In short, Valencia was once a stop on the silk route. It was originally a Venetian colony, which explains why the city feels so different from the rest of Spain. Legend has it a Chinese princess brought silk worms to Valencia and created the first silk production outside of China. As the Venetians were such good traders, they built the silk exchange to capitalize on this. It was one of the first commodity exchanges in the world and also one of the earliest banks. Plus it is a gorgeous building- a beautiful temple of commerce.
Once you finish touring the silk exchange, I recommend walking around and looking at the architecture. Valencia has some of the most intricately, uniquely beautiful buildings I have seen. I love that they are their own unique fusion of beaux arts, art nouveau, baroque and old Arabic design.
While you’re there, you absolutely must eat a paella. In Valencia, they don’t call them paellas. Rather they are called Arrozes. Arroz means rice in both Castellan (the Spanish spoken in much of Spain) and Valenciano. Valenciano is a patois spoken in Valencia. It’s close to Catalan, but the people are much more respectful of Spanish speakers than they are in Barcelona. An Arroz Valenciano has chicken and rabbit, while an Arrox Sayoret is the one with the seafood.
I have two favorite places to get an arroz. My first choice, La Marcelina, is an institution. It is located on the beach- the Playa Malvarrosa. However, this is no chiringuita, or clam shack. It’s a Valencian institution. It’s been in operation for over a hundred years and is a very elegant affair, replete with linen table cloths, fine china and old world chandeliers that catch the light glinting off the gold sand and aqua Mediterranean. If reminds me most of a watery version of Antoine’s in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Another excellent choice is Restaurante La Riuá, located in the historic city center. A family friend who lives in Valencia took me here. This is Valencia at its most typical. Azulejos (blue and white tiles) on the walls, solid wooden tables and rices so rich you will have to take a siesta afterwards. They have the most unique paellas I have ever seen- my favorite was the one made with black squid ink. One of the paellas was so unique my friends from Valencia had never seen it before. I don’t recall the name, or even the specifics, but it had an egg in it and was, as they say in Spain, muy rico. Another dish from Valencia that is similar to an arroz is the fideuà. Basically, it’s a paella but with noodles instead of rice.
As I’ve alluded to before, Venice reminds me very much of Venice and New Orleans (two of my favorite cities in the world). All three of them love a glamorous festival. Valenica has many: Las Fallas (which I’ve never been to but plan to go next March) and Semana Santa arguably being the biggest.
I’ve seen the Easter processions in the south of Spain: Sevilla and Cadiz. The processions in Valencia are slightly smaller, but I think I like them better. Aside from the penitentes, they also have people dressed in Ancient Roman outfits, and women in traditional Valencian dress. Again, much more feminine and less austere than the processions in the south.
Other things to do
Valencia is also home to the incredible, Calatrava (a native of Valencia) designed City of Arts and Sciences. It is well worth a walk over to look at the buildings. In particular I recommend seeing the Opera House and visiting the Aquarium.
In the old town, the Ceramics Museum is not to be missed. Even if you don’t like ceramics, the building itself, housed in a 15th century palace, is gorgeous. I think it might be the most beautiful building in the world.
The Central Market, located at Plaça de la Ciutat de Bruges, is definitely worth a visit. Not only does it have hundreds of food stalls selling beautifully arranged fruits and vegetables, but the building itself, designed in 1914, is gorgeous.
Make sure you go in the morning as it is only open Monday-Saturday, 7.30-14.30h. There are a number of restaurants around the market that are excellent for a tapa. I recommend doing what Spaniards do and having an early afternoon vermouth- the proper time to do this is 13.00h.
And if all else fails, you can always go to the beach!
Where to stay
There are many hotel options in the city. Since my first trip to Valencia I have visited a couple time and have either stayed either with friends, or at a Vincci Hotel. I have stayed at the Vincci Lys and the Palacio Vinnci. Both are beautifully appointed, well located and good value for your money. The only thing I don’t like about them is the bath products. They’re not bad, just rather generic.